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'Messiah' for farmers who laid siege to capital

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TAPAS CHAKRABORTY Published 16.05.11, 12:00 AM

Lucknow, May 15: Mahendra Singh Tikait, the Jat farmer “messiah” famous for paralysing Delhi with a weeklong siege in 1988, died this morning in the middle of a farmers’ upheaval on his home turf of western Uttar Pradesh.

The 75-year-old’s death has created a leadership vacuum in the land movement and could kick off a race among political parties to woo Jat voters ahead of next year’s Assembly elections.

Bhai aisi hai baat (brother, such is the truth),” Tikait might have said in his folksy style, using his favourite opening lines, if he were alive to witness the scrap.

The end, caused by complications from bone cancer, came at his son’s home in Muzaffarnagar town, 370km west of Lucknow. The Bharatiya Kisan Union leader is survived by four sons and two daughters.

Tikait was revered as the farmers’ “second messiah” after the late Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, and straddled their social and political life through his diktats as “chaudhary” (head) of the supposedly 1,400-year-old caste council, Baliyan Khap.

The hereditary title of “Tikait” was apparently conferred on his family by the seventh-century emperor Harshavardhan. But in today’s politics, Tikait himself was a kingmaker thanks to his support base of 2.75 crore Jat farmers spread over 35 Assembly and 12 Lok Sabha seats.

The high point of his maverick career was the siege he laid in 1988 on the Boat Club lawns — which was soon to become the leitmotif of populist politics in north India — to pursue higher prices for sugarcane, lowering of water and power tariffs and a contentious loan waiver.

The arrival of Tikait’s farmer league at New Delhi’s central vista was probably the most vibrant takeover of the capital by countrymen. They came pouring out of the western UP hinterland in tractor cavalcades and in next to no time, they had made the Boat Club lawns their vast bivouac.

For a day or so, the government was in denial of Tikait’s determination to stage an extended sit-in. But when they began to pitch tents, install their mobile ovens and light little fires, and when their accompanying cattle began to make a bog of the lawns, Delhi sat up and took notice.

They sang and danced by night; by day they sat listening rapt to their leader’s extended harangues. Delhi’s classes frowned at the chaotic disarray that broke out on the showpiece green lung of the capital. The government was at a loss to cope with the sudden avalanche of peasants in its well-ordered official district.

But Tikait couldn’t care; he wasn’t going anywhere until he brought the capital down to accept his demands. He sat there, day after day, for a whole week, pulling on his hookah and from time to time, getting on the public address system to keep his flock engaged.

He called the siege off only when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi held out promises that rang right to Tikait’s ears. It was the first time Delhi had been given a taste of doughty peasantry.

Sholay over TV

Born on October 6, 1935, at Sisauli in Muzaffarnagar, Tikait had become the “chaudhary” of Baliyan Khap at the age of eight after his father’s death. A resolution of the Baliyan Khap says: “We will work with our body, heart and soul under the leadership of our chaudhary... (who) has the right to even demand our lives.”

Tikait would use this clout to issue edicts, including many against intra-gotra marriages. A social conservative, he would not even watch TV but loved to see the film Sholay again and again, and had a Facebook account opened for him by eldest son Rakesh.

Although his ailments restricted his movements for the past one year, Tikait was still the figurehead for the current land agitation against the Yamuna Expressway.

Son Rakesh, the likely successor to the “Tikait” title, is not charismatic and might struggle to keep the flock together, allowing the political parties to compete for the father’s huge support base.

Tikait, whose favourite book is said to be Charan Singh’s biography, had always backed the Rashtriya Lok Dal, led by his hero’s son Ajit Singh. Ajit and Rakesh have recently come closer to the Congress, a fact that helped Rahul Gandhi sneak into agitation hub Bhatta Parsaul last week and cock a snook at Mayavati.

The Congress will expect to grab a slice of Jat votes in the region, where Ajit and the BJP had been allies during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. The BJP too is wooing the agitators.

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